Gerald Downes got many things from his parents, including a love of science. “My parents always encouraged my interest in science,” he says. “They taught me to think about the world around me, to ask questions, and look it up if I didn’t know the answer.”
His father, an engineer, also taught him that going to college without having outside obligations was a gift. Both his parents are professionals, but as Downes says, “they didn’t get to go away to college for four years. They were from inner city Boston and my dad worked three jobs and went to school nights. It took each of them eight years to get their degrees, while working and having kids.”
Downes has had a number of opportunities and he doesn’t take them lightly. He chose to work in public higher education on purpose, and he chose his area of study, the brain, specifically in order to contribute to the greater good.
Growing up on the South Shore of Massachusetts, Downes’ passion for science was fueled by his high school science teachers, especially his biology teacher. Then the summer before his junior year he attended a summer science camp at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., on a scholarship he received through his father’s workplace.
“My dad always emphasized what a privilege it is to be able to go away to college and focus on your studies,” Downes says, “and this was my first taste of understanding that.” He immersed himself in anatomy classes and low-level electrophysiology and he began to get a sense of what college could be like. “I couldn’t wait to go away to college and be around people who were as passionate about science as I was,” he says. He knew he’d be a science major in college, the only possible question was exactly which aspect of science, biology or chemistry.
He ended up at Johnson C. Smith College, a small historically black college in Charlotte, N.C. As positive as that experience was for Downes, he did not have access to the intensive research environment he was looking for. So he went off campus, spending a semester at Duke University’s Marine Laboratory and a summer at Vanderbilt University’s medical school. “Duke foreshadowed grad school and I loved it,” he says. “I took intense small classes in the morning and then in afternoon had intense research experiences. That’s where I started to like the idea of grad school.”
These research experiences were absolutely critical to his applications to competitive graduate schools, Downes says, a challenge not shared by students at UMass Amherst. “That’s a huge benefit for undergraduates here,” he says. “They have opportunities to work in a research lab. The people teaching them are immediately grounded in what's happening. We are at the forefront of research. We bring what researchers are thinking about right now and ferry that back into the classroom.”
His father was disappointed that he went to grad school and not medical school, Downes says. But was attracted to the process of asking questions and seeking answers through research. So he went to Washington University in St. Louis for his PhD in neuroscience. “I wanted to work on something that would still have relevance decades later,” he says. “I have a lot of innate curiosity and I thought, why not be pragmatic, try to answer something people are going to want to know, where the answer would be valuable. How the brain works is such a black box.”
Downes came to UMass Amherst after a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. “I love the idea of public higher education,” he says. “I love working for the public good. I preferentially looked at public universities. Those were what I focused on. I came here because I really love the people. My colleagues are great scientists and they care deeply about social issues and teaching. It’s been a good fit.”
Today he can’t say enough about UMass Amherst. “This is a fantastic place to get an education,” Downes says.” Everything's here. It’s not as daunting as it might seem at first glance. Professors are approachable. Once you're here you find your community, and then everything can feel a lot smaller. There's a very large research community and it’s a very socially accepting place. There are so many possibilities! You can launch yourself in so many different directions from here.”
In the end, Downes says, it’s all about his love of science and his scientist colleagues. “I love the process of discovery and the integration of technology,” he says. “I love the scientific community. Scientists are fascinating people. After I finished my PhD there was a party and some of my professors came, and at the end my dad said, ‘I get it. I get why would you want to do this, why you would want to surround yourself with people like this.’ It was one of the best things he ever said to me in my life.”